Wednesday 6 May 2009

Gordon Brown's been "Jim Hackered"

On a topic entirely unrelated to privacy, Matron wonders if she is the only one who thinks that Gordon Brown has been completely "Jim Hackered" by Joanna Lumley on the Gurkha issue. Watch this video of the statement she gave after her meeting with the Prime Minister today and compare her strategy with that used by the famous TV Minster at the end of the "Big Brother" episode when he finally gets one over on Sir Humphrey. To quote young Bernard Woolley: "I'd say, 'Checkmate!'"

Friday 1 May 2009

Principiis obsta et finem respice!

After a long conference and work induced absence, Matron's blogging reflexes were triggered today not by the big important developments of the day (RIPA and IMP consultations, ICO RAND report etc. - maybe more about those later, time permitting), but by a small news piece in the Guardian, which reports that a Brazilian MP has just proposed draft legislation that would force Rio de Janeiro's state government to publish an online list of all HIV carriers. The reasoning behind this proposal is, apparently, a wish to protect medical staff and other citizens from contamination.

It reminded Matron of an ongoing discussion she has with the inimitable Lilian Edwards (currently a pleased-as-punch and fully paid-up member of the "hydra-headed gang of online privacy pirates" whose purpose is to damage behavioural advertising company Phorm. But that, again, is another story.) about the merits - or not - of a general right of disclosure of other people's personal information on the internet. The discussion centred largely on such disclosures by individuals on social networking sites, so, obviously, this potentially state-sponsored Brazilian proposal would go far beyond that and raises a completely different set of issues. But Matron can't help wondering whether some of the same considerations do apply in this context as well.

If we do accept that individual privacy can be restricted to protect some other common good (like a perceived notion of public safety) or individual right (like freedom of speech, expression and opinion), what are the limits? Indeed, are there any limits or should we be able to expose everything about another person, strip them digitally naked so-to-speak, if it serves a justifiable purpose?

As she often does, Matron looks to the German Constitutional Court's for an answer. It's case law defines individual behaviour as falling into three separate "spheres": the public, the private and the intimate sphere. Interference with an individual's privacy in the interest of competing rights is permitted, subject to certain limitations like necessity and proportionality, in the public and the private sphere, but not in the intimate sphere. The Court recognises that in relation to each individual there exists a "core area" of privacy - arising from individuals' human dignity and their right to self-determination and self-development - that must not be touched or interfered with by anyone for any purpose, however well-meaning.

In this day and age, it's a controversial concept with security-conscious state protectors on the one side and freedom of speech advocates armed with "floodgate" arguments on the other, both questioning its legitimacy.

But can there really be a right to information about another individual - and a right to spreading that information - in the same way as there should be a right to information - both collecting and disclosing it - about the activities of governments and public authorities (the latter, of course, being the notions that underpin Freedom of Information legislation and the right to the freedom of the press)?

But governments supposedly work for us and the transparency and accountability that are the ultimate objective of these rights of information gathering and disclosure are necessary to even out the unequal power relationship between the state and the individual. They are part of the system of checks and balances that is meant to stabilise our democratic political system.

Can the same really be said about our relationship with other individuals and can there be a right to gather and disclose information about our friends, acquaintances, enemies as well as people we barely know or don't know at all? Again, what would be the limits of such a right? Indeed, is there, should there be, a limit at all? Where does citizen journalism end and -seemingly inconsequential but potentially damaging - gossip begin? And what new power relationships - some open, some hidden from view - are we creating or re-creating in this brave new online world?

So resist the beginnings and consider the end. Or should it be the other way around?